Cup-Club: Reducing our waste

How much carbon could we save if we switched to reusable coffee cups?
28 February 2017

Interview with 

Safia Qureshi, founder and CEO of cup club


Disposable cups


Being concerned about climate change and doing something about it is not just for hippies! It’s for all of us, and more and more people are starting to make changes on a personal and societal level. One person who decided to take matters into their own hands joins us now, it’s Safia Qureshi founder and CEO of something called Cup-Club, which aims to reduce the waste from single use take away coffee cups. She spoke to Kat Arney about the amount of waste created from single-use cups.

Safia - In the UK we found coffee cups are one in five of the most polluting items in our city. I know that sounds completely bonkers and it’s very difficult to visualise it. But if you think of what we did with plastic bags and how much of a crazy endemic plastic bags were, paper cups are also a very close second. We found in the UK we consume 2.5 billion paper cups a year.

Kat - But they’re paper. Surely paper is like biodegradable. It’s recyclable - right?

Safia - No! None of that, no. Paper cups are not a mono-material. Now any materials scientist will tell you that putting together more than one material makes it a very complex product to then deal with later on in the waste streams. The word paper cups is very misleading because naturally paper is not resilient to water or moisture. I think if it was a true paper cup it would fall apart in you hand and you’d probably scorch it.

The internal lining of most paper cups is a material called polyethylene and it counts to between 2-5 percent of the entire material product so it is, essentially, two products that are bound together.

Kat - And you can’t get them apart and you can’t recycle them. So what is cup club? How have you tried to solve this problem of the paper cup?

Safia - What we developed is a cup which is, essentially, a solid cup. You buy your coffee in the same way that you always do but we developed a return point. So instead of throwing it in a bin, you return it at a drop point that we develop and design.

Kat - And then do you get any money back? What do you do if you give your cup back and don’t just bin it pile them all up at home like my reusable bags?

Safia - Exactly. You give a deposit that gets returned to you. You get incentives, so we’re developing all kinds of incentives.

Kat - Like if you return ten cups you can get a free coffee or something?

Safia - Or reduced coffee. That’s something we’re negotiating with retailers, yes. There’s definitely a reward that we need to give users for doing the right thing.

Kat - This is my own personal reusable cup; it’s a lovely shade of grey and green I got from the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. So I take this around with me and make my own coffee. But the idea is that you get your cup, clean, new with your coffee or cleaned with your coffee and then you return it and get the deposit back? So it’s not like this is something that you take home and own?

Safia - Exactly. You do not keep that cup - that’s a one time model.

Kat - How do you think this is actually going to work? Have people said they’ll get on board with this sort of scheme?

Safia - We’ve trialled it with our first education partner in the university at the Royal College of Art and we did extremely well. We initiated it through the students first because, again, they are generation Y, they’re born into a time of crisis, very passionate about getting involved in sustainable products…

Kat - … and drink a lot of coffee?

Safia - And drink a lot of coffee to do all of that work. We had a huge amount of success and now we’re rolling that out to further universities this year. So yes, you’ll see a lot of change.

Kat - Brilliant! If you can get this kind of scheme to work. So if you can significantly reduce paper cup consumption, what are we talking about in terms of carbon dioxide saved?

Safia - Consuming energy into a product that is reused many, many times is a lot more efficient than making products that consume energy and is only used the one time. So by increasing the reusability and the way that you optimise a product means that you’re using less energy over its life cycle, which immediately has a massive CO2 output reduction.

We’ve calculated from a manufacturing perspective and understood that 15 paper cups in terms of plastic is the same as one of our cups. So we calculated our product is reused up to 1,000 times, and we do a little bit of simple maths, we realise that we actually reduce CO2 by half a kg just by transitioning ourselves to a reusable cup. So simply by calculating on a per cup use, we were able to calculate, year on year, what our CO2 reduction savings would be, which starts to go into the thousands of tons. So it ends up, just in manufacturing terms, 18,000 tons.

So by reducing something on a simple daily basis, and we’re not asking people to really go about changing the way that they drink coffee even, it’s genuinely just instead of finding a bin you just find a collection point.

Kat - What about other things? I go into a high street chain, I buy a salad and I’ve got my little plastic knife and fork, I’ve got the box that it comes in. Could you do the same thing with all these kind of things?

Safia - You could - absolutely. What I’d like see is that this actually triggers a whole movement of returnable food boxes, returnable or refillable bottles,  so we don’t see all kinds of plastic packaging on…

Kat - Egg boxes. I remember going down the shop with my egg box.

Safia - We could do egg boxes - there you go. Kat - that’s a startup idea.

Kat - Right -  that’s mine if anyone’s listening. Well, I think that’s wonderful. What is your future vision for this kind of idea and technology?

Safia - My future vision is zero waste. My future vision is enjoying your every day and being able to do something good without it costing you too much. And, like a lot of the talks we heard today about climate change, it can be really heavy and it can be quite daunting. What we wanted to do was develop a product that would align with people’s values. Something really as simple as making a decision - do I want it in a more sustainable product than what I currently have? Giving people options.


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